Jul 16, 2009
The most vocal critics of human rights commissions often
invoke freedom of speech. Yet they were strangely silent when Ottawa
effectively blocked Al Jazeera Arabic TV's entry into Canada in 2004.
And they are mostly silent now about Al Jazeera English's application
before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission.
treated like that in Canada is a minor irritation for the folks at the
Qatar-based Al Jazeera, including the Canadian Tony Burman, managing
director, English. They have seen far worse.
A-J Arabic was started in 1996 as a way of putting the gas-rich Persian Gulf emirate on the map.
Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani got it started with $140 million and the
freedom to do real journalism. The quid pro quo was that the network
wouldn't go after him. As compromising as that sounds, it isn't really.
Which Canadian media excoriate their owners?
A-J spread like
wildfire. Using its motto, "The opinion and the other opinion," it
broke one taboo after another. Are the Saudi royals corrupt? Is
Hezbollah a terrorist organization or legitimate resistance?
Kuwait and Bahrain shut down A-J bureaus. So did the Palestinian
Authority (again, yesterday). Algeria shut down its own power grid 10
minutes into an A-J program on extrajudicial killings in that country.
Arabia once banned its citizens from watching, appearing on or talking
to anyone from A-J. It ran an effective campaign to have advertisers
pull their business from Al Jazeera.
It pulled its envoy from Doha.
So did Morocco. Tunisia and Libya severed diplomatic relations.
Egypt dubbed A-J a "Zionist channel."
Al-Jazeera was accused of being a lackey of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and Hamas - as well as Israel and the CIA.
November 2001, two American 500-pound bombs were dropped on the A-J
bureau in Kabul, levelling the building. No one was inside.
the Iraq war, its office in a Basra hotel was hit by four American
missiles. Again, no one was hurt. Its Baghdad bureau was bombed,
killing one correspondent. A-J staff was repeatedly harassed, beaten,
With its many bureaus and enterprise reporting, A-J got
scoops galore: the 1998 Anglo-U.S. bombing of Iraq; interviews and
tapes of Osama bin Laden; the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, etc.
It was the first Arabic channel to interview Israelis. It was the first with women sports reporters.
Canada, the A-J Arabic application was approved in 2004 by the CRTC but
under strict conditions. To ostensibly protect viewers from possible
anti-Semitic material, the channel's distributors were to be held
responsible for its content. They balked.
"The effect of the
commission's decision is to turn distributors into censors," said
Michael Hennessy, president of the Canadian Cable Association. "This
sets a frightening precedent."
Now it is the Al Jazeera English network, started in 2006, that's up for consideration. The CRTC is expected to meet next week.
The English network broadcasts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from four centres - Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington.
has developed a following of 140 million households in 100 countries -
a footprint that the BBC and CNN took 10 years and more to develop. But
unlike them, "our home team is not London or Atlanta. We have no home
team to cheer," says Burman, former head of CBC News.
reports from under-reported regions of this world. It does so in
detail, not two- or three-minute clips. This at a time when other media
are retrenching, and Canadians are seeing less and less of news from
around the world.
The network has a staff of 1,200 from 50
nationalities, "the most diverse newsroom in the world," says Burman.
"Our staff is as multicultural as Canada. A-J should have special
resonance in Canada."
Burman also says that "Israeli politicians
appear on Al Jazeera more than on any other network outside of Israel.
We provide more coverage of Israel than any other international
coverage outside of Israeli networks.
"We are seen in Tel Aviv but not Toronto, in Haifa but not Halifax, in Kiryat Shmona but not Calgary."
That makes no sense.
CRTC has no choice but to give Canadians the freedom to see Al Jazeera
English. Otherwise, it would place Canada in the company of those
autocrats who have tried to silence Al Jazeera.
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